U.S.-Cuba: New Challenge to Normalization

By Fulton Armstrong

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses State Department employees. / U.S. Embassy in Cuba / Creative Commons

The Trump Administration’s decision to sharply reduce staff at the U.S. embassy in Havana and to warn U.S. travelers to avoid travel to Cuba is a major blow to U.S.-Cuba normalization – and a sign that Washington’s policy is once again dictated by politics rather than reality.  Announcing the measures, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last Friday admitted that “investigators have been unable to determine who is responsible or what is causing these attacks,” but he still said that more than half of U.S. diplomats will be withdrawn “until the Government of Cuba can ensure [their] safety.”  Washington is also suspending the processing of tens of thousands of visas for Cubans seeking to visit or migrate to the United States.  Most travel to the island by U.S. officials will also cease; bilateral meetings will continue only in U.S. territory.

  • As the State Department itself has admitted, the “sonic attacks” – which have not been proven to be either sonic or attacks – remain a total mystery. No agency of the U.S. or Cuban governments is aware of a technology that fits the victims’ description of what they experienced, and non-government scientists have been equally puzzled.  Doctors analyzing the victims’ symptoms (headaches, hearing loss, memory loss, confusion) do not see a common cause.  Moreover, no one has been able to ascertain that the incidents amount to deliberate, premeditated attacks.  No one has produced any evidence to support speculation that “rogue” elements of the Cuban government or a third country even possess, let alone have used these unknown technologies.  President Trump said on Friday, “Some very bad things happened in Cuba.  They did some bad things” – without saying who “they” are.
  • Leaks over the weekend that the diplomats suffering the worst symptoms have been U.S. intelligence officers seem intended to rationalize allegations of targeted attacks. But the Associated Press, which reported the leaks and other key aspects of the story, noted with irony: “Almost nothing about what has transpired in Havana is perfectly clear.  But this is Cuba.”

Even though none of the more than 600,000 U.S. travelers to the island each year has reported any of the symptoms experienced by the U.S. diplomats, Washington also issued a statement that “warns U.S. citizens not to travel to Cuba.”  The State Department has provided no evidence that visitors are in danger.  Travel warnings are a powerful political signal of low confidence in host governments and can have a huge impact on local businesses – including many thousands in Cuba’s nascent private sector.

The Administration deserves credit for resisting the temptation to blame the Cubans for the attacks, but it fell prey to its own mindset about “sonic attacks” and – under political pressure –got stuck reacting to an incredible scenario with a counterproductive set of measures.  While the State Department was right to admit its ignorance, a handful of legislators in Washington – a small group that had forcefully opposed normalization all along – filled the information void and corralled Tillerson into a policy prescription that undoes mainstays of the bilateral relationship, including visas, reciprocal meetings in each capital, and other cooperation that requires a robust presence in Havana.  By trying to scare away travelers, moreover, Tillerson threatens to take crucial business away from private entrepreneurs.

  •  The scope of the Administration’s measures – including discouraging non-governmental travel – contradict the leaks suggesting that the incidents are part of a spy war between the two countries. A full epidemiological study about everything the victims had in common – food, drink, habits, and workspaces within the embassy building itself – conducted months ago, when evidence and memories were fresh, would have helped inform these decisions.  To accuse Cuba now, almost a year after the first incident, of failing to meet Vienna Convention obligations to protect diplomats rings hollow since the United States has accepted the sincerity of Havana’s efforts – from President Raúl Castro down to the working-level experts – to resolve the mystery and address its causes.  Having achieved the practical shutdown of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, opponents of normalization are now demanding total closure of Cuba’s embassy in Washington.  Politics is once again in danger of becoming the main driver of U.S.-Cuba bilateral relations.

October 2, 2017

Haiti: Yet More Challenges Ahead for President Moïse

By Emma Fawcett*

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A group of peacekeepers from the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) prepare for departure from the island. / UN Photo / Isaac Billy / Flickr / Creative Commons

Haiti’s new president, Jovenel Moïse, has helped the country overcome the long political crisis that preceded his election, but he faces losing two long-running forms of support from the international community.  MINUSTAH, the UN peacekeeping operation that has been in place for 13 years – successor to similar missions since 1994 – will depart this autumn, necessitating an expansion in Haiti’s domestic police force.  The U.S. Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, providing temporary legal residency to some 58,000 Haitians in the United States since the 2010 earthquake, appears likely to end in January 2018.

  • MINUSTAH has long been the backbone of Haitian internal security, for which Haiti’s own forces lack competence and credibility. The UN’s demobilization began in May, when units from Chile, Uruguay, and Peru returned home.  Brazilian units remain in the country to oversee the return of equipment and disassembly of base facilities.  Operations will officially cease on October 15.  MINUSTAH is one of the United Nation’s longest running peacekeeping missions, and its loss will have a significant impact even though its operations have been plagued by tragic (and criminal) missteps.  It was responsible for bringing cholera to Haiti; the epidemic has since killed more than 10,000 people.  In addition, an Associated Press investigation revealed nearly 2,000 accounts of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers, including about 300 perpetrated against minors.  While the UN has a “zero tolerance” policy against sexual exploitation, it does not have the power to prosecute perpetrators – and holding troops accountable is the responsibility of their home governments.  Sri Lanka has declined to investigate more than 100 of its soldiers, who were sent home in 2007 after sexual abuse allegations.
  • The Haitian government requested an 18-month extension to the TPS program, but U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly opted to extend by just six months. While Kelly said the program will be reevaluated before the current extension expires, his statement has effectively signaled the end of the program, noting that the short extension “should allow Haitian TPS recipients … time to attain travel documents and make other necessary arrangements for their ultimate departure from the United States” and give the Haitian government time to prepare for their repatriation.  The Haitian government has argued that it is ill equipped to manage an influx of returnees, and that the remittances provided by those in the TPS program are vital to Haiti’s continued recovery.

More than seven years after the deadly earthquake, Haiti’s recovery remains elusive, and the departure of MINUSTAH and potential end of the TPS program portend a rocky road ahead for a new government that is just barely getting some traction.  The end of both forms of support for Haiti represent donor fatigue – not Haitian achievement of benchmarks of progress.  Port-au-Prince couldn’t reasonably expect the UN to continue providing it security support for another 20 years, but Moïse is about to bear the brunt of series of predecessors who failed to prepare the nation for the UN’s departure.  The support Haiti has received from the international community has always fallen short of promises; nearly $10 billion in pledges for post-earthquake assistance never materialized.  But donors also point out that Haiti has often failed to uphold its end of the bargain; the protracted election crisis caused many to withdraw budgetary support.  While both the UN peacekeeping mission and U.S. immigration policy have been at times poorly executed, their absence will be a major blow, if nothing else because changes on both fronts are proof that Haiti is no longer anyone’s priority.  Moïse’s administration has much to tackle – bolstering the national police force and preparing for the arrival of potentially tens of thousands of TPS returnees without adequate resources for either task – while he addresses 14 percent inflation and a bloated civil service.  Looking for homegrown solutions would be a huge challenge for any country, especially one struggling with as many fundamentals as Haiti.

May 31, 2017

* Emma Fawcett is an Adjunct Professorial Lecturer at American University and a monitoring and evaluation specialist with an international NGO.  Her doctoral thesis focused on the political economy of tourism and development in four Caribbean countries: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Mexican Caribbean.

U.S.-Mexico Tensions: Harbinger for Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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The U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana and San Diego. / Tomas Castelazo / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

U.S. President Donald Trump’s unilateral actions on Mexico last week have precipitated the most serious crisis in bilateral relations in decades and threaten to further undermine U.S. image and interests throughout Latin America.  During last year’s campaign, in the face of Trump’s characterization of Mexicans as rapists and drug-traffickers and repeated pledges that he’d make Mexico “pay for the Great Wall,” President Enrique Peña Nieto adopted a strategy of patience and positive engagement.  He paid dearly in political terms for meeting with Trump in August – a misjudgment that worsened his already declining popular approval – but he continued to try to stay on the high road after the election.

  • Peña Nieto resurrected former Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, the architect of the Trump meeting last August, as Foreign Minister, and he replaced his ambassador in Washington with one having deep experience with NAFTA and a reputation for calm negotiation, in response to Trump’s repeated demand for a renegotiation of the 1994 accord. As opponents across the political spectrum egged him on to reciprocate Trump’s belligerent tone and strident U.S. nationalism, Peña Nieto – like all Mexican presidents for the past 25 years – tried hard to suppress the anti-Americanism that has lingered beneath the surface of Mexican politics even while the two neighbors have become increasingly integrated economically, demographically, and in governance.  Even after Trump’s first barbs following inauguration on January 20, Peña Nieto emphasized his preference for calm dialogue – “neither confrontation, nor submission.”  He declared that Mexico doesn’t want walls but bridges, and accepted the American’s demand to renegotiate NAFTA, although with a “constructive vision” that enables both sides to “win,” with “creativity and new, pragmatic solutions.”

Preparations for the summit meeting, scheduled for this week, crashed when Trump – without coordinating with his Mexican counterpart or the appropriate U.S. government agencies – issued executive orders putatively aimed at tightening control of the border.  One directed an immediate increase in efforts to deport undocumented Mexicans, and the other launched the “immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border.”  Trump initially abided by an informal agreement with the Mexicans not to repeat his harangue that he was going to make Mexico pay for the wall, but on January 26 he tweeted that “If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.”  His press spokesman followed up with a suggestion that Washington could impose a 20 percent tariff on imports from Mexico to cover the costs of construction, after which Peña Nieto, facing a firestorm at home, postponed the meeting.  The two presidents talked on the phone for an hour the following day and reportedly agreed to let things calm down, although the two sides presented different versions of the chat.

The speed of the trainwreck – in Trump’s first week in office – and the depth of the damage his unilateralism has done to bilateral relations have alarmed many in Mexico and the United States, including Republicans who worked hard to build the relationship.  (Only the Administration’s stunning decrees regarding immigration from other parts of the world have overshadowed the mess.)  Mexico is, of course, not without leverage and, as Trump stirs up long-repressed Mexican nationalism, Peña Nieto – whose popular support was recently in the garbage bin – is going to have to talk tough (at least) and could have to retaliate.  He could impose tariffs on the billions of dollars of Mexican exports that Americans have grown accustomed to having at low prices.  Mexico could also opt to diminish cooperation in counternarcotics and other law enforcement efforts, or to cease blocking Central American migrants seeking to reach the U.S. border – interests that the impulsive Trump policy team doesn’t seem to have considered.

Coming on the heels of Trump’s executive order totally withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the new president is presenting the image of a U.S. leader whose harsh policies and arrogant style serve neither the United States nor Latin America’s interests.  Having appointed as White House National Security Council Senior Director for Latin America a political scientist whose writings draw bizarrely on analytic approaches that have been rejected in the discipline for more than 30 years, and whose recent articles lament the Obama administration’s abandonment of the Monroe Doctrine, the region’s leaders will rightly conclude that Washington is voluntarily abdicating any plausible case for leading multilateral cooperation around common interests.  The United States and Latin America are inextricably linked, however, and a policy based on stale assumptions of big power unilateralism ultimately will run into insurmountable obstacles: however ignorant Trump and his team are proving themselves to be, we live in the real world of the 21st century, in which imperialist, mercantilist fantasy will be treated with the disdain that it deserves.

January 31, 2017

Prospects Dim for Better U.S.-Venezuela Relations under Trump

By Timothy M. Gill*

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Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and U.S. President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Tillerson’s past dealings with Venezuela may lead to increased tensions between the two countries. / President of Russia website / Creative Commons / William Muñoz / Flickr / Creative Commons / Modified

U.S. President Donald Trump and his foreign policy team have expressed similar criticisms of the Venezuelan government and, while giving off contradictory policy signals, appear headed toward a policy focused on sanctions rather than continuing the dialogue that the Obama administration recently opened with its counterpart in Caracas.  As the U.S. Senate continues its confirmation hearings of Trump nominees, Latin America has featured very little in the discussion thus far, but passing mentions of the region suggest greater consensus among the Trump team than on other issues such as the threat of Russia and the Iran nuclear agreement.

  • In September, Trump expressed support for the Venezuelan opposition. He asserted that he will “stand in solidarity with all people oppressed in our hemisphere … [and] with the oppressed people of Venezuela yearning to be free.”  He blamed “the socialists” for running Venezuela “into the ground.”  He has also recently shown interest in the cases of Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo López, two opposition leaders that respectively remain under house arrest and in a Venezuelan prison.
  • Several of Trump’s cabinet selections also seemingly harbor animosity toward the Venezuelan government. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, nominated to be Secretary of State, concluded a case against the Venezuelan government in an international court in 2014 involving the expropriation of his company’s facilities.  Venezuelan President Maduro accused ExxonMobil of inciting conflict between Venezuela and Guyana when it announced that it would work with the Guyanese government to drill oil in an area that both countries claim.  General Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, has included Venezuela (and Cuba) in the “enemy alliance” that the United States faces “in a global war.”  General John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security, has condemned the Venezuelan government for its alleged involvement in drug trafficking.

While the Trump team is obviously unhappy with Caracas, their statements so far shed little light on what they’ll concretely do differently from the Obama Administration.  Obama designated the Venezuelan government “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to the national security of the U.S. in 2015 and sanctioned a handful of state security leaders.  But there has also been renewed interest in recent months on the part of both governments to dialogue.  In late 2016, Maduro met with former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary Tom Shannon.  Despite disparaging Trump during the campaign season, Maduro extended his congratulations to him on November 9, and publicly reiterated his hope for better relations.  On January 16, Maduro stated that he was “surprised at the brutal hate campaign against Donald Trump,” and he welcomed the Trump administration, saying that Trump “won’t be worse than Obama.”

Aggressive rhetoric from Trump is a given, but his true position on Venezuela – as well as many other countries – is not entirely clear.  Businessman Trump undoubtedly grasps that strategic relations are founded on Venezuela’s role among the United States top five international suppliers of crude.  He has at times been dismissive of the concept of “democracy promotion,” which drives much of Washington’s advocacy in places like Venezuela.  He shows a penchant, however, for the sort of double-standard that most irks Latin America – criticizing Cuba and Venezuela’s political systems but praising Kazakhstan and Russia.  Moreover, he may be tempted to throw a sop to U.S. politicians who have led the effort to impose sanctions on the Venezuelan government.  During Tillerson’s confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate, Senator Marco Rubio – with whom Trump had bitter exchanges during their party’s primaries last year – made criticisms suggesting continuing tensions, but Venezuela would be an easy issue for Trump to throw Rubio’s way as a peace offering to the lawmaker from Miami.  Indeed, while it’s far too early to make concrete predictions, it seems safe to say that Obama’s late-game efforts to reset the relationship with Venezuela will not continue under the new Administration – and we might expect Trump to more intensively target the Venezuelan government in the coming years.

January 23, 2017

*Timothy M. Gill is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Inter-American Policy Research at Tulane University.

Colombia: Historic Progress, Historic Challenges

By Fulton Armstrong

Colombia Peace

The leadership shown by Colombian President Santos and FARC Commander “Timochenko” – encouraged by the Vatican and the governments of Cuba, Norway, and the United States – will be tested as challenges to completion and implementation of a final accord are certain to be intense.  The President and FARC leader announced last week that they’d resolved the thorny issue of justice for guerrilla and government commanders accused of serious crimes and set a deadline of 23 March 2016 to sign a peace agreement.  The most important – and controversial – provision covers “transitional justice” for a range of offenses, including crimes against humanity.  Most of the estimated 6,000 rank-and-file FARC combatants will get amnesty, while commanders will choose between confessing their crimes and serving five- to eight-year terms performing labor in institutions other than prisons, or refusing to cooperate at the risk of much longer terms in prison.  (The same procedures will be established for government military officers accused of atrocities and those guilty of financing the paramilitary fighters who ravaged the countryside through the mid-2000s.)  The FARC also agreed that guerrillas would begin handing in their weapons when the final accord is signed.  Negotiators had previously agreed on rural development strategies, political participation, and counterdrug policies.

Almost universally, the agreement has been hailed as an historic achievement.  The announcement in Havana capped three years of talks facilitated by “guarantors” Cuba and Norway and later supported by the United States, represented by former Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson.  During a mass in Cuba several days earlier, Pope Francis had implored the two sides to strike a deal, noting that “we do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure on this path of peace and reconciliation.”  U.S. Secretary of State Kerry called the Havana accord a “major breakthrough” and pledged that Aronson would stay closely engaged.

Latin American peace accords – most ending wars much shorter than the five decades of Colombia’s – provide ample evidence that the road ahead, however historic, will not be without difficult challenges.   

  • The accord will require a constitutional amendment, and President Santos will have to submit it for congressional approval and a national referendum. Former President Uribe, who leads Centro Democrático, has already declared war on it, calling it “a coup against democracy” that will lead to a “new dictatorship backed by guns and explosives.”  (Uribe also attacked Kerry’s statement as “deplorable.”)  Public discussion of details of guerrilla abuses, including forced youth recruitment and sexual violence, will play into opponents’ hand.
  • Colombian Prosecutor General Alejandro Ordóñez, an Uribe ally, said last week that any accord that does not entail prison terms for FARC commanders guilty of crimes would be “legally and politically untenable.” He claimed that it would violate victims’ rights and international law, which requires that punishment for war crimes be “proportional to the crimes committed.”  Human Rights Watch also condemned the provision and predicted the International Criminal Court would do so as well. 
  • Fulfilling commitments in the agreement to address the longstanding lack of government infrastructure in huge expanses of the country, help even modestly the resettlement of the more than 5 million persons displaced by violence, and expand programs to alleviate poverty and income inequality will have price tag beyond Colombia’s current ability to pay. Informal estimates of the 10-year cost are $30 billion.  The willingness of Colombian elites, who only grudgingly paid a war tax, to help foot the bill is far from certain.
  • The FARC’s ability to enforce discipline among its rank and file is also untested. There are reports that some commanders oppose any agreement.  Moreover, like demobilized paramilitary combatants, many combatants know no life other than rural combat and will be tempted to keep their weapons and join criminal networks that continue to terrorize rural communities.
  • The outstanding U.S. warrants for the extradition on drug-trafficking charges of reportedly dozens of FARC commanders may require some finessing, but Colombia’s peace commissioner, Sergio Jaramillo, suggested confidence that Washington will not demand extraditions if, as is almost certain, they would be a deal-breaker.

September 29, 2015

Honduras: Dare Anyone Criticize?

By Fulton Armstrong

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Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez. Photo Credit: Presidencia de la Republica del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

The decision last week by the Constitutional Chamber of the Honduran Supreme Court to legalize presidential reelection appears to have benefited a man – current President Juan Orlando Hernández – whose political fortunes got a shot in the arm from the 2009 coup that removed President Mel Zelaya for proposing a constitutional assembly to consider just such an action.  A Liberal Party magistrate said he wanted to recant his vote the next day, but the ruling party published the decision in the Gaceta Oficial before he could.  The Supreme Court, ruling in favor of petitions by former Nationalist President Rafael Callejas and several members of Hernández’s National Party, repealed two key articles of the Honduran Constitution, including one that says “the citizen who has served as the head of the executive power cannot be president or presidential candidate.”  Callejas immediately announced that he was resurrecting his Callejista movement, called MONARCA, which won him the presidency in 1990, and his campaign literature appeared in the streets of Tegucigalpa soon after.

The Court did not explicitly overturn Article 4 of the Constitution, which states that an “alternation in the exercise of the presidency of the republic is obligatory.”  That action reportedly will fall to the National Party-led Congress, but President Hernández is almost universally seen as the big winner from the Court decision, culminating his effort to continue as President.  After the coup that removed Zelaya from power, Hernández had a hand in congressional strategies to give a constitutional and legal framework – widely debunked – to Zelaya’s military ouster and later, while serving as president of the Honduran Congress and while campaigning for president, Hernández engineered the removal of four of the five justices of the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court and replaced them with more sympathetic judges.  He subsequently had a role in selecting a replacement for the fifth, who became Attorney General – making for a court unanimously indebted to him.  (He was sworn in as national President in January 2014.)  Reacting to the court decision last week, Hernández noted that “reelection is something that is a general rule around the world … Prohibition of it is the exception … [and] Honduras has to make progress.”  His opponents have vowed to fight the repeal.  Leaders of the Partido de Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE) have accused the justices of “betrayal of the fatherland.”  One said the court “guaranteed the impunity” of the Hernández government, but the opposition’s legislative strategies have failed before.

Representing Central America’s most violent and most corrupt nation, President Hernández is seen in Washington as essential to success of U.S. policy in Central America and initiatives such as the “Alliance for Prosperity of the Northern Triangle.”  With a request for a billion dollars on its way to the U.S. Congress, the Obama administration can ill afford to point out Hernández’s hypocrisy for doing what he condemned former President Zelaya for trying to do in 2009.  Political inconveniences aside, the political cynicism and tensions that his and former President Callejas’s maneuvering will incite in violence-ravaged Honduras can hardly be seen as helpful to the goals of good governance and democratic consolidation that all profess.  When Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega engineered a similar judgment by his Supreme Court in 2009, allowing him to run for an additional term, the State Department did not mince words about its “concern” for its implications.  Hernández, in contrast, was in Washington securing support for funding when his court announced its decision.  The U.S. Southern Command’s new task force of some 250 Marines is expected to arrive in Honduras and begin training of security forces involved in “fighting the drug traffickers.”

May 1, 2015

Sanctions on Venezuela: Why?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Photo credit: NCinDC / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Photo credit: NCinDC / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sanctions against Venezuela that the Obama Administration announced last week respond to political pressure to punish alleged human rights violators in Caracas, but they have no immediately apparent policy objective.  The State Department announced that it has suspended the U.S. visas of “a number of Venezuelan government officials who have been responsible for or complicit in … human rights abuses” during protests earlier this year, which resulted in the deaths of at least 40 people, injury of hundreds more, and jailing of dozens of activists.  The Department did not release a list of sanctioned individuals nor divulge the information used to compile the list, but press reports indicate that 24 officials have been targeted and include cabinet members, presidential advisers, police, and military officials.  The sanctions do not affect bilateral trade or Venezuela’s place as the United States’ fourth biggest foreign supplier of oil.

U.S. condemnation of the Venezuelan government and the blacklisted officials has been strident, but there has been no public explanation of what Washington expects the sanctions to achieve.  The statements of U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Feeley, made to a Colombian radio station and reported by El Universal in Caracas, strongly suggest the sanctions are intended to show solidarity with the Venezuelan opposition and U.S. disapproval of the government of President Nicolás Maduro.  “Social protests have been a genuine war cry from people oppressed by the lack of democracy,” Feeley is reported as saying.  “The [sanctions] were intended to note that the U.S. cannot allow, for the sake of its values, that a supposedly democratic government represses the legitimate expression of the people’s voice.”  The State Department has not demanded, however, any particular action by Caracas to lift the sanctions, such as an investigation into the abuses, re-launching a national dialogue, or compensating victims.  Feeley suggested that the governments of Colombia and Brazil – with which he said the U.S. government had “meditated” about the issue – supported the sanctions, but regional support for them has been muted at best.  Indeed, the Administration had responded to last May’s House of Representatives vote in favor of sanctions by indicating that these would be counterproductive and could undermine efforts at mediation by these same countries.  The one dissenting voice in the House, Congressman Greg Meeks (D-NY), explained his vote as opposing unilateralism, adding that its passage was a message to Latin American governments that we don’t care what they think.

The Venezuelan government has repeatedly and credibly asserted that a significant portion of the violence has been perpetrated by protestors rather than the state or government supporters, and a number of officials have been charged.  Nonetheless, no U.S. sanctions have been brought against opposition members who planned or participated in violent actions.

Some observers have attributed the U.S. action to pique that Aruban and Dutch officials several days earlier rejected its request that they extradite to the U.S. Venezuela’s new consul in Aruba, a former chief of intelligence whom Washington suspects of trafficking in drugs with the Colombian FARC – despite Vienna Convention provisions regarding diplomatic immunity.  More likely, the sanctions are a reaction to a realization that the quixotic “salida” campaign, which many in Washington somehow imagined could bring down the Maduro government only months after it had won an election, had all but petered out, leaving the opposition in disarray and the government in a renewed position of strength.  Sanctions also are a bow to congressional pressure on the Obama Administration to act against Caracas, which has continued to grow even after the salida campaign has run out of gas.  Just hours after the sanctions were announced, Senator Marco Rubio issued a press release taking credit for them, and other conservatives – led by the Cuban-American congressional delegation – called for even tougher measures.  Without clear objectives, however, the sanctions seem to be mostly a moral and political statement – pushing relations into yet another dead end from which neither government is disposed to find a way out.  Indeed, Venezuelan officials, calling the sanctions “a desperate cry from a nation that realizes the world is changing,” are turning the diplomatic adversity to domestic political advantage, just as administration officials had wisely predicted in pushing back against the Congressional saber rattling last spring.

Prospects for U.S.-Latin American Educational Exchange

By Aaron Bell

Picture3Regional educational exchange has become an important talking point for U.S. administrations in recent years, but data is still lacking to judge it a success or failure.  In 2011, the Obama administration announced the 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative, intended to promote a north-south multilateral exchange of 100,000 students by 2020.  The State Department casts it as a means for students in the hemisphere to develop the relationships and skills necessary to meet four contemporary challenges: citizen security, economic opportunity, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability.  The organizations tasked with fulfilling the program’s goals include the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs, whose 60-plus years of advocacy on behalf of international education is based on the belief that “international education leads to a more peaceful world.” Whether such lofty aspirations are possible is subject to some debate, but the more-easily measured effect of 100,000 Strong will become clearer when the Institute of International Education releases its report later this year on international study to and from the United States during the past academic year.

Latin American countries as diverse as Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico and El Salvador have student exchange programs of their own, with the U.S. a leading destination.  Mexico sent the most students to the U.S. of any Latin American nation in 2011-12, but its 13,000 students were only the ninth largest source of international students in the U.S.  The most commonly touted example of U.S.-Latin American exchange is cooperation with the Brazil Scientific Mobility Program, part of the Brazilian government’s plan to send 100,000 students abroad by 2015 to study in key science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.  Responding to the weakness of these fields in many Brazilian universities and to the growing demand for highly qualified graduates in high-tech industries, so far over 7,000 Brazilian students have studied at over 200 U.S. universities and interned at 300 companies, with another estimated 3,900 now in such programs.  Cooperation in education exchange is not limited to high-tech fields.  In Washington, for example, Georgetown University administers leadership training to “disadvantaged communities” and “historically underserved populations” from Latin America through the State Department’s Central America Youth Ambassadors Program and the USAID’s Scholarships for Economic Education and Development (SEED) Program.

While governments like Brazil’s have financed their international study programs, the U.S. has asked the private sector to take the lead in expanding pre-existing programs like Fulbright.  Two years ago, 64,000 Latin American students studied in the U.S., compared to 40,000 U.S. students in Latin America, of which one third stayed only for a summer.  If part of the purpose of 100,000 Strong is to improve regional relations through personal contact and exposure to the region’s sociocultural diversity, educational exchanges will need to flow north-south on a more equal footing.  It remains to be seen if the U.S. private sector is willing to meet such a commitment.  There is also the perennial question of whether educational exchange programs enhance economic development and mobility in Latin America or instead contribute to “brain drain.”  The development of high tech industries in places like Brazil offers a more promising future for returning students, but their absence in poorer regions like Central America is a source of concern.  Finally, 100,000 Strong and similar programs should be judged on how they respond to the largest challenges facing universities throughout the Americas: affordability, providing quality education for students of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, and in Latin America specifically, making local universities appealing settings for internationally-trained intellectuals and experts.

Will the U.S. support controls on security contractors in Latin America?

Photo by: Charles Atkeison / flickr / Creative Commons

Photo by: Charles Atkeison / flickr / Creative Commons

An upcoming conference in Switzerland will test U.S. willingness to make good on its rhetorical support for greater control over private contractors involved in wars or similar circumstances.  The “Montreux plus five” conference in December will discuss implementation of the Montreux Document, which lays out legal obligations and “best practices” for countries that hire “Private Military and Security Companies” (PMSCs) during armed conflict.  The process emerged in 2008 to reiterate state responsibilities after contractors were found to be deeply involved in incidents in Iraq – including the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and a confrontation at Nissour Square in which 17 civilians were killed.  The United States, which participated in discussions of the Document and endorsed it, has been developing its own “standards” based on it.

Although the PMSCs in Iraq and Afghanistan – and their alleged involvement in human rights abuses – are most widely known, security contractors are deeply engaged in U.S. efforts in Latin America related to the “war on drugs.”  In the 2005-2009 period, DynCorp, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, ITT, and ARINC collectively received counternarcotics contracts in Latin America worth a total of $1.8 billion.  The contracts include provision of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, information technology, and communications equipment.  Lockheed Martin received contracts for training, equipment, and other services in Colombia and Mexico. Yet the majority (Democratic) staff of the subcommittee on contracting oversight of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs concluded in 2010 that neither the State Department nor the Department of Defense had adequate systems to track the implementation of counternarcotics contracts.  Referring to contract and accounting errors, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs told the subcommittee chairman that it “does not … maintain discrete records of such occurrences since these challenges routinely occur at the embassies.”

The subcommittee’s focus was on contracting anomalies, but publicly acknowledged incidents – such as DynCorp’s violation of guidelines governing coca eradication in Colombia – suggest oversight over operations is also lacking.  In Colombia, for example, two cases of rape of a minor involving U.S. contractors were reported yet remain uninvestigated, and in Mexico a contractor appears to have been involved in torture training.

PMSCs often carry out their work within the dark interstices of sensitive operations – beyond the government’s immediate operational control but functioning with its imprimatur and expecting its protection when things go wrong.  The U.S. Senate’s acknowledgement of the need for better management and oversight over them has not driven significant reforms yet.  If the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences are any guide, problems with the monitoring of expenditures are the tip of the iceberg.  Security contractors tend to run rough over human rights, and they are often a source of tensions with both governments and the population in host countries.  The use of security contractors without effective monitoring is a source of diplomatic tension within the region as well.  DynCorp’s aerial eradication operations, for example, provoked Ecuador to file suit against Colombia in the International Court of Justice, arguing that Colombia dispersed toxic herbicides into Ecuadoran territory, damaging human health, property and the environment.  The two countries recently resolved the dispute, but the case illustrates the risk of outsourcing sensitive operations to contractors without careful monitoring.

What’s Up with Cuba Policy?

By William M. LeoGrande

Photo by Rinaldo W. / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo by Rinaldo W. / Flickr / Creative Commons

A little over six months into President Obama’s second term, the administration is giving hints that something is afoot in relations with Cuba.  Back in 1994, Fidel Castro told a group of former U.S. ambassadors that he needed a two-term U.S. president to normalize relations with Cuba because no first-term president would have the political courage to do it.  Could Barack Obama be that president?  Efforts to engage with Cuba during his first term were frozen after the 2009 arrest of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross.  Despite evidence that Gross had violated Cuban law, the administration insisted that Gross had done nothing improper and demanded that he be freed immediately.  When he wasn’t, the U.S. position hardened: there would be no improvement in relations with Cuba, not even on issues of mutual interest, until Gross was released.  Gross is still in jail four years later; the non-negotiable demand strategy failed utterly.

The second Obama administration appears to be trying something new.  In May, the Department of Justice dropped its insistence that René González, a member of the “Cuban Five,” serve out his probation in Miami rather than Cuba.  Shortly thereafter, Cuba granted Alan Gross’ request to be examined by his own doctor.  In late May, Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry official in charge of relations with the United States, met in Washington with Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson – the highest-level U.S. official to meet with a Cuban diplomat in several years. After this reportedly constructive encounter, the State Department announced the resumption of bilateral talks on immigration (suspended since January 2011), and on re-establishing direct postal service. Working-level diplomats have resolved most points of disagreement on a postal accord, a Coast Guard search and rescue accord, and an oil spill containment protocol – although the U.S. side is loath to use the word “agreement,” lest it stir up trouble with a small but loud contingent in Congress.

Although U.S. policy is no longer completely paralyzed by the predicament of Alan Gross, it remains tentative, cautious, and incremental – far from the bold stroke that Fidel Castro was hoping for from a second-term president.  In May, the State Department again listed Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” in its annual report, although the rationale read more like a justification for removing Cuba from the list—a move reportedly under discussion by the Obama team.  When the administration sent its FY2014 budget request to Capitol Hill, it again requested $20 million for “democracy promotion” in Cuba, continuing programs like the one that got Alan Gross arrested.  Radio and TV Martí, which cost U.S. taxpayers $28 million a year, continue to beam programs below Voice of America standards to a shrinking radio audience and non-existent TV viewers.  (Cubans call TV Martí “la TV que no se ve” —No-See TV.)  If Obama had the mettle to make the bold stroke, these provocative, ineffectual programs  would be on the chopping block in tough budgetary times.  More positively, the president could take the initiative by appointing a special envoy to talk turkey with Havana, and he could promote a U.S. policy debate on Cuba that’s long overdue.  Incrementalism will only take us so far.  Real change in U.S.-Cuban relations requires vision and courage – qualities Obama displayed on comprehensive health care and immigration reform.  After all, as Lyndon Johnson once said, “What the hell’s the presidency for?”

Dr. LeoGrande is Professor of Government in the School of Public Affairs at American University.